Despite overwhelming obstacles, Polynesians are 28 times more likely than any other ethnic group to make it to the NFL. Many Polynesian families have come to view football as their ticket out of economic hardship and gang life, only to discover bitter disappointment when their expectations fall short of reality.


Tony Vainuku


Tony Vainuku's first career aspirations began on the field, as a budding professional football player from Salt Lake City, UT. Years later, after his prospects of playing professional ball dead-ended, Tony was introduced to music video production, which he immediately fell in love with. He enrolled at Westminster College, Utah, to explore film production and found his niche in writing and storytelling. After graduating with a B.S. in Business Marketing, Tony founded a multi-media company, Soul Profile Productions, featuring local sport promotions, wedding videos, web ads and promos. In 2002, Tony produced and shot his first film, "Makaveli," a music video-themed short. Tony has since written a variety of TV concepts, short scripts and documentaries. In addition, Tony launched the Soulpro clothing line.


Erika Cohn

Producer, Co-Director

Erika Cohn grew up attending the Sundance Film Festival as a native Utahn, where she first began her career. Filmmaking has enabled Erika to travel the world to places such as Cambodia, where she shot "Giant Steps," a documentary about the reinstitution of art after the Khmer Rouge, which aired on PBS in May 2009. Most recently, Erika associate produced the Frontline/American Experience series "God in America." Erika has received numerous accolades for her films, including a Director's Guild of America award for her film, "When Voices Fade." She attended Chapman University in Orange, Calif., where she graduated with degrees in Film Production and Middle Eastern Studies. In addition to "In Football We Trust," Erika is distributing the documentary "Boys of Bonneville," and serves as a US Ambassadorial Film Scholar to Israel.

special-feature-blue.png“In Football We Trust” explores the bonds of the Polynesian community and the role that football plays in the lives of Polynesian men like Star Lotulelei. Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn take the audience behind the scenes discussing the subject behind their film and the message they want to send out to others like Lotulelei who may or may not make it to the pros.  


PBS: Can you explain the relationship between the Polynesian community and football for those who may not know? 

TONY VAINUKU: So the origin of the story. I grew up in the same community as our subjects with a lot of Polynesian cousins and uncles who played football and were advancing in football at a really young age. A lot of us looked up to NFL players like Vai Sikahema who ends up being in the film, Junior Seau from the San Diego Chargers, and they all became role models for us at a young age. Again, all of us were excelling at football at the time or we do even now in little league football and whatnot, so it became something really easy that motivated us. For most of us — all of us wanted to be in the NFL but it was a younger uncle of mine that was our NFL hopeful. He ended up being recruited, but instead he got addicted to drugs and he ended up going to prison 10 years. And so that story of him really inspired me to tell the story of all Polynesians that are really raised to play football at the cost of everything else. Later when I got into filmmaking I wanted to tell this story and I knew there were other Polynesian kids that mostly related to it just because I know the community. 

ERIKA COHN: American football was introduced to Pacific Islanders in the early 1900s with missionary schools and colonial sports clubs. Later the seemingly close alignment between football culture and Polynesian culture (especially respect for authority, community-mindedness, teamwork, self-pride, etc.) combined with the large and agile build of some Polynesian men, began to interest college football teams. By the 1970’s American football had become a potential pathway out of poverty, and a legitimate means to migrate to the United States. Samoan and Tongan young men are 26 times more likely to make it into the NFL than any other ethnic group. Yet, this statistic/their overrepresentation in college football and the NFL give an impression of equality. In reality only a few athletes receive college offers or professional contracts, leaving the rest to search for alternatives often too late in the game.  

PBS: It’s clear that family plays a huge role in Star’s life, especially when the audience has the chance to see the large support system behind him when he learns whether or not he’ll be picked up by an NFL team. What was it like to witness that moment? 

TONY: Well I was actually family with some of his family so I had family members there. However, I’m not directly related to [Star]. However Star was so humble. I think he had an idea that he was going to be picked in the first round. But when he wasn’t picked kicked in the first little bit he got nervous and went downstairs and you could feel the tension. It’s definitely surreal and I think a humbling moment for him because of his journey on his way. He went to a junior college before — he didn’t go the route of the D 1 schools and was picked up by Utah. So I think he had a humbling and tough road for that day. So it was definitely surreal and humbling to see his family get that gratification. 

ERIKA: When I was interviewing Star, I was deeply struck by something he said. "I don't know if I can really say I love football. I like football. But I love my family and that's why I do it." Family is everything to Star and football just happens to be the avenue where he can provide.  

PBS: Star seems relatively calm the day he performs before all the NFL teams. What was the atmosphere like that day and how long was filming for this? 

TONY: So Pro day is where a lot of the college athletes are still trying to get looked at by NFL teams; it’s kind of their last day to perform. Star was in pretty good shape but he wanted to make sure to secure his position and make sure he put his best foot forward. 

At Pro Day we filmed just that day. One day. The interesting thing about Pro Day is that he was actually pretty calm because I think he had been in contact with the Carolina Panthers and I think they showed some big interest, but it speaks to the way Star is. Star didn’t necessarily have to show up at Pro Day but he did anyways just to make sure.  

PBS: How do you hope this will help other young Polynesian men and women when it comes to pursuing their dreams? 

TONY: Because it’s a universal story in that way to where you know it is about that American dream. It’s about providing for your family and just creating more opportunity for your situation. However, as far as it coming down to football and how it’s used I hope that the takeaway that football can be used as a vehicle as long as you’re the one driving. A lot of times I think the sport uses them versus them using the opportunity in the sport. So you hope they walk away understanding they shouldn’t put all their eggs in one basket and you shouldn’t sacrifice everything for this one medium.  

ERIKA: We live in a society where poverty is equated with crime and low-income immigrant communities labeled as “at-risk,” are subsequently caught in a vicious cycle of marginalization and discrimination that further exacerbates their dependence on avenues like sport, often utilized as an opportunity for social mobility. Now immigrants in the US struggling to live “the American dream,” using football as a way out of poverty is not often out of choice or desire, but out of economic necessity. In the film, we see Star strive for the promise (or at least the perceived promise) of the NFL. He is but one man, out of hundreds who were unsuccessful. I hope this will help youth see that dependence on sport cannot be the only option, that there always has to be a backup plan. 


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